Judith Kaur, M.D., says it was her grandmother who first put the thought of becoming a doctor into her head. "My grandmother, Ada, had no formal education, but she was a very wise woman and a very keen observer," Dr. Kaur, medical director for Native American Programs at the Mayo Clinic Cancer Center, says in a recent interview with Indian Country Today Media Network. Her grandmother, she says, "was not a healer, but she thought that I had the potential to be a healer, and she was the first one that ever put that little seed in my brain."
She started down a different path, however, based on advice she received from her teachers. Though she expressed an interest in the sciences, Dr. Kaur says, "My science teachers encouraged me to get a K to 12 teaching certificate that they said would be useful the rest of my life," she tells Indian Country Today. And that's been true, she says. "I’ve tried everything from Head Start through graduate school now."
In time, she decided to make the leap from teaching to medicine. And that seems to have worked out alright. Although Dr. Kaur is one of only two American Indian medical oncologists in the country, the cancer research, education and outreach work she's doing is helping to change the cancer attitudes and outcomes in Native American communities. "We are focused on what’s called community-based participatory research, which means that the community identifies a priority, and then we work together as partners to look for solutions," she tells Indian Country Today. Highlights include "working with Alaska Native pregnant women on smoking cessation," promoting wellness among young people, managing diabetes, and efforts "to get men into screening."
And Dr. Kaur tells us she hopes her conversation with Indian Country Today will encourage more Native American young people to look at health care as a possible career choice. "The need is great," she says. "There was a time that if you were a Native American doctor, you were not allowed to go off and do a subspecialty … Because the Native American health services are so dependent on first-line primary care, they really didn't want people sub-specializing who wouldn't then go back to a reservation or a Native American health clinic."
Hers was the first generation for which that became an option, Dr. Kaur says. And she remains optimistic. "I see very bright students who really want to help their tribes now getting the education they need," she tells Indian Country today. "We need energetic, idealistic young people who are well-trained, who can do this work. And I’m hopeful."
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